WEST YELLOWSTONE, Mont. — With a little less than a kilometer left, the pack started to panic. Saturday marked the first SuperTour sprint of the season and the gap Sun Valley Ski Education Foundation (SVSEF) Gold Team veteran Matt Gelso had put on the five other skiers in the men’s sprint final was not getting smaller.
The winner of last year’s SuperTour sprint season opener, Reese Hanneman of Alaska Pacific University (APU), saw the nearly 15-meter lead Gelso had established halfway through the 1.3-kilometer men’s freestyle sprint final heat as a sign.
“I was in third or fourth thinking, ‘Uh, OK, we better start closing this down,’” Hanneman said during an in-person, post-race interview.
The odds seemed against Gelso. Racing behind him was not only Hanneman (a two-time national sprint champion), but also APU’s Tyler Kornfield (a 2012 national sprint champion), Bend Endurance Academy’s Dakota Blackhorse-von Jess (winner of three national sprint titles), as well as American junior sprint star Cole Morgan (SVSEF), and sprint specialist Ben Saxton of the Stratton Mountain School (SMST2).
“Basically in the final it was five sprinters and then Matt,” Hanneman said. “So I think he knew that he had to go out like … and then I think none of us thought that [Gelso] could hold it all the way. … It was really impressive skiing by him to just go for it the whole time.”
Yet, as Gelso began to climb the final hill of the course on the Rendezvous Ski Trails, he proved his gap on the other five finalists would take a strong challenge to beat. Hanneman pushed around Morgan, Saxton and Blackhorse-von Jess, while racing behind his teammate Kornfield. The two APU racers began gaining on Gelso, but not soon enough.
With 100 meters to go, Gelso, a 28-year-old SuperTour regular best known for his distance skiing, left the two sprint champions chasing, and crossed the finish line first in a time of 2:36.85 for his first SuperTour sprint win.
“I was pretty fired up,” Gelso said after. “I didn’t know going into the semifinal and final if [leading from the start] was going to still work … but I had the body and the skis to stay consistent with my plan.”
Crossing 1.94 seconds after Gelso was Kornfield, who indicated that his second-place finish was his best performance on the West Yellowstone sprint course since the start of his sprint career.
“The first year [I raced] here I didn’t even qualify,” Kornfield said after. “This is the first year I’ve moved on from the quarters…[last year] I got taken out and I took Eric Packer out too.”
“I think none of us thought that [Gelso] could hold it all the way … It was really impressive skiing by him to just go for it the whole time.”— Reese Hanneman (APU), on Matt Gelso’s sprint performance Saturday
The final podium finisher for the day was Hanneman, finishing 2.27 seconds after Gelso and 0.33 seconds out of second place.
“I didn’t feel that good in the qualifier,” Hanneman said. “I was skiing a couple gears lower than I needed to be but then I started feeling better in the heats … I think after today I’ll definitely wake up and feel a little bit better.”
The final three finishers included Saxton in fourth (+5.1), Morgan in fifth (+5.34) and Blackhorse-von Jess in sixth (+22.85).
‘Big Win’ for Bender
In the women’s 1.3 k freestyle sprint, it was Jennie Bender of the Bridger Ski Foundation (BSF), who took first, besting SMST2’s Erika Flowers and Annie Hart.
Bender, 28, started the day by winning the women’s qualifier in 3:08.76, holding off Hart by three hundredths of a second.
“My goal is to do better in qualifying, and I did that today, so that was a big win for me,” Bender said. “I love this course and I hope to repeat last year, get back to Europe and race some World Cups.”
After winning the qualifier, Bender’s course time only got faster. She won her quarterfinal in 3:08.24 and her semifinal in 3:06.86. By the time she finished the women’s final in first, she had covered the 1.3 k course in 3:04.78, almost four seconds faster than her qualifying time.
With a strong headwind challenging many of the racers who chose to lead, Bender decided in her final to follow the other finalists for the first half of the course before making her move.
“There’s a lot of wind happening so … you kind of have to play with the wind and whether or not you want to be the only one blocking it or not,” Bender said of the heats. “I led my quarter, and I was like ‘Holy sh*t, I took all the wind myself!’ so I was trying to kind of mess around with sitting behind people the next two heats, and that felt way better.”
While Bender’s plan for the final was to tuck in and conserve for the first half, then surge to the front in the second half, Hart decided to lead out of the start.
“Because we had some big headwinds [today] … the debate was whether to lead or follow,” Hart said. “I went into the rounds and decided to lead most of them, because I ski better generally when I kind of feel like I’m in control.”
Hart skied at the front of the pack up until the course’s last climb, where her teammate Flowers passed her on the right side and Bender cruised by on her left.
“I just, one, didn’t have much energy left, and two, there really wasn’t anywhere to go,” Hart said of her attempt to hold onto the lead. “I typically don’t do very well in West Yellowstone, so this year was by far the best first race I have had … I will take it.”
Rounding the final turn, Bender took the inside lane while Flowers remained to the far outside left. The two raced head-to-head through the final 100 meters, lunging to the line for a photo finish.
Bender was eventually awarded the win and Flowers took second by a mere 0.09 seconds. Hart crossed in third, 1.94 seconds behind Bender.
“I needed a lane, so I moved outside early and zoomed up the hill as fast as I could, and then into the finish,” Flowers said of final move up the course’s last climb. “I don’t think I quite realized I was as close to Jennie as I was until about ten feet from the finish line. It was exciting, I’ve never thought of myself as a sprinter, so it was fun to do well.”
“She was behind me the whole time until that hill,” Bender said of Flowers. “And you just save so much energy, due to headwind, so I think that helped both of us. It’s funny, we talked about it before our quarter — she was in my quarter, I was like, ‘it’s better drafting,’ and it worked out!
“I feel pretty fit compared to previous years, I would say, and I’m hoping for a good season,” Bender concluded.
Also in the final was Hannah Halvorsen of the Sugar Bowl Ski Academy and U.S. Ski Team in fourth (+2.0), APU’s Chelsea Holmes in fifth (+3.86), and University of Colorado-Boulder (CU) skier Petra Hyncicova in sixth (+4.53).
Gabby Naranja considers herself a true Mainer, having grown up in the northern most part of the state playing hockey and roofing houses with her five brothers. She graduated from Bates College where she ran cross-country, track, and nordic skied. She spent this past winter in Europe and is currently in Montana enjoying all that the U.S. northwest has to offer.